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Red Wine in the Middle of Nowhere

Posted: Sep 29, 2006 8:40am ET

I am leaving in 30 minutes for Pinar del Rio, the tobacco region of Cuba, to visit the world’s greatest tobacco grower, Alejandro Robania. The 84-year-old is to tobacco what Robert Mondavi is to California wine. And he is a salty old man, who makes me feel like I am spending time with my late grandfather. He's like family to me and he knows everything there is to know about tobacco and cigars. I think they are laying on a little fiesta for me today since it's my birthday. The drive is about two hours out of Havana.

I don’t want to bore you with all this, but the parallels between tobacco and wine are very interesting. What makes great cigars is what makes great wines. It is a question of raw material from places with special soils and climates--what the French would call terroir. Robania has the Romanee-Conti of plantations for wrapper tobacco (the stuff that goes on the outside of cigars). And his tobacco is used on some of the island’s most prestigious smokes, such as Cohiba and Trinidad.

Anyway, I am motoring there in a few minutes, down a long a bumpy road with very few cars but the occasional bus, taxi or truck. It’s like going back in time, as many of the vehicles are from the 1950s. But that’s another blog. Or I’ll tell you in person.

The cool thing is that I am bringing Alejandro a case of red wine as a present. His doctor told him that he should lay off the rum and cerveza and drink more red wine. Unfortunately, red wine is not easy to find out in the middle of nowhere. Many people don’t even have electricity or windows for their houses. So I bought 12 bottles of something simple, good and available in Havana--Torres Sangre de Torro of Spain’s Penedes region. I had a bottle in a tiny restaurant last night in Havana with some grilled ribs, rice and beans, and it did the trick nicely (after I chilled it a bit in the fridge).

You can’t drink super Tuscans and classified-growth Bordeaux all the time! And a simple bottle of hearty red is good just about anywhere...

Guus Hateboer
Netherlands —  September 29, 2006 12:27pm ET
I know this is a wine blog, but I remember that when I was in Cuba in 1992, it was completely impossible to get to Cuba as a normal US citizen (being Dutch...that was however easy). Also, Cuban cigars were not for sale in the US, or are they now these days? In other words: does it make sense for a US magazine to write about Cuban cigars that are not for sale in the US? Maybe it's all different these days, but that was what it was like 14 years ago.I did some travelling around Cuba in an old Buick from the 50's back then...what a country, and the mix of cultures! Awesome. Enjoy your stay!
Paul Manchester
Santa Cruz, CA —  September 29, 2006 1:38pm ET
James, I'm a little jealous of the places that your job takes you. I'm sure that you have the usual hardships as well, but I like travel and it sounds cool to go to the variety of places that you do. This story reminds me of the trip that introduced to me to fine wines. I went with my brother and a friend to Central Baja for a surf trip. We were way out in the boonies camping in the dirt, yet managed to get out there in a small motor home that allowed us to bring some assorted cases of wines. I had never had any good wines up to this point and we started tasting through the bottles on the first night. Nothing stood out to me until we got to the 1993 BV George Latour Reserve, "Whoa what's this!?" I remember saying. From the first aromatic whiff to the last tasty drop in my mouth I still remember that lovely wine... structured & balanced with that classic Napa curranty fruit and the "Rutherford dust" notes weaved in there. I know it isn't the best vintage for the BV Latour reserve, but it was for me at the time and I've been hooked on fine wine ever since. I still joke with my brother about how the other campers on that trip were blowing in the dirt drinking warm Pacificos while we're enjoying pasta, fish and fine wines. If you've ever been to remote, dusty, windy Central Baja you know the irony of that statement. So don't hesitate to break out a bottle for someone no matter where you're at, you never know who you might be introducing to good wine for the first time. Keep up the good work James, I love the Wine Spectator magazine, website, blogs, etc... I'm pretty much hooked.
Brandon Redman
Seattle, WA —  September 29, 2006 1:55pm ET
Feliz Cumpleanos, James. Espero que tengas un buen viaje.
Alex Cobb
Fort Worth, TX —  September 29, 2006 2:37pm ET
Guus, I smoke cigars rarely, but can say that Cubans are still illegal in the US. That doesn't stop Americans from wanting to smoke them though, that's for sure. I don't know any statistics, but I would say a good percentage of American men (or women for that matter) like to pick them up though when traveling overseas where they are legal.
William Newell
Buffalo, NY —  September 29, 2006 2:47pm ET
I know it's a wine blog, too, but did you have to fly from Canada to get to Cuba? Do your credentials as a journalist give you a waiver from the US travel restrictions?
James Suckling
 —  September 29, 2006 5:42pm ET
Guys. I have been going legally to Cuba since 1992 as European Editor of Cigar Aficionado. And thanks for wishing me a Happy Birthday.
Brad Coelho
New York City —  September 29, 2006 8:03pm ET
Happy birthday James! My father has been the cigar-guru and I was always the enophile; w/ us influencing each other to bridge the cigar-wine gap. He keeps his eyes peeled to your cigar reviews, and I to your European wine coverage. We finally came together at Club Macanudo in midtown, and more recently at 'the Velvet Lounge' adjacent to Peter Luger's steakhouse in Brooklyn. There is no more satisfying conclusion to an evening than a Padron 3000 Maduro and a 20 year old tawny...such relaxing bliss!All the best and safe travels.
Joseph Romualdi
Woodbridge, Ontario, Canada —  September 29, 2006 9:45pm ET
Buon Compleanno a te....
Guus Hateboer
Netherlands —  September 30, 2006 1:18pm ET
James, if I had known you were celebrating your birthday I would have come over!! Happy birthday man!! I know that US journalists are free to come to Cuba, and no doubt you are free to move around describing the amazing style of the Cuban cigar and how it is made. They are very proud people although it is not always easy to live a normal life there. Anyway, cheers and have good smoke!
Alvaro Esquivel
Miami, Fla —  September 30, 2006 6:21pm ET
James I really wish a very happy and nice birthday, hope the party goes well too.It is very nice of you to give the case of Sangre de Toro to such an icon like Don Alejandro Robaina.Enjoy your weekend. Cheers!!
Roger P Smith
October 2, 2006 11:31am ET
Just returned from 10 days in Spain and had a few days in Barcelona. In trying both the Torres Tinto and the Blanco, we found them very palatable for the types of food common there, and likely also for the Cuban cuisine. But what great values they are, particularly in the Penedes region. Like most of the Spanish reds, the Sangre will not likely impress those lovers of big, bold Cabs or Syrahs, but I'm sure will be well received by those with tastes for the cuisine born in Spain. On the subject of Cuban cigars, I was terribly disappointed in what has transpired in the 5 years since last in Spain. The Habanos are still relatively available, but most bars and restaurants now forbid smoking them inside. With weather that is either hot or cool during most of the year, this puts a huge damper on enjoying these beauts. What will become of those who yet enjoy a great Habanos?!?

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